My refrigerator houses an array of condiments from places near and far, suitable for many cuisines. I tend to buy bottles of random things when snooping about a food market in a neighborhood (or country) I’ve not visited in some time. Mostly these bottles collect dust, the inner goop too obscure for me to make the effort to combine it with its proper mates (though an occasional weekend cooking project will have me rooting through the cupboards).
In principle, I don’t consider chili paste one of these obscure condiments. After all, many cuisines have multiple condiments made of chiles that are critical to their dishes. But until lately, the pastes I’ve picked up along the way remained the wallflower at the prom — I see them there, they look pretty, but I’m afraid to approach them.
And how lucky I am to have finally gotten over my shyness! Harissa, from Tunisia, seems innocent enough, but the fairly smooth brick-red paste hides the intense heat that is to come when stirred into your morning scrambled eggs, as I once did. No need for coffee that day. At least the Indonesian sambal oelek gives some advance warning — the fiery little chile seeds are floating about in the loose, dark red sauce with no shame. Yet the heat is tempered a bit with some sweetness; I like it when making chickpea stew. The most recent experiment is with kochujang, a spicy Korean chile bean paste that looks a bit like tomato paste. I browned some pork, and then added the kochujang to caramelize and thicken the pan sauce (as I would with tomato paste). It was perfect over plain rice: spicy, sweet and a bit jammy.
I’m not saying chile pastes have replaced my holy trinity of Dijon, mayo and ketchup, but I’m way more open to change now, and realizing my lugging all those bottles home from the markets might not have been in vain after all.
Liz Tarpy works for Food Network and Cooking Channel. She considers herself a Food Person due to her devotion to global flavors.